Trying to find the catalyst for this particular anxious iteration was as futile as attempting to determine what, precisely, precipitated a volcanic eruption or an earthquake. This is not to say that my mom’s fears are baseless. As a Cuban immigrant, the condition of her life in this country has always come with an asterisk. Although rare, naturalized citizens like my mom can have their citizenship revoked under certain extreme circumstances. It’s easy to imagine the threat of denaturalization and expulsion fostering a culture of uncertainty for an exile community already living in the tenuous condition of the uprooted and displaced.
Like my mom, the poet Ocean Vuong came to this country as a child. The details of their individual situations bear little resemblance to each other — my mother’s family arrived from Cuba in the mid-1960s, Vuong’s family came from Vietnam 30 years later — but they share a similar legacy of exile. That legacy haunts Vuong’s debut collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, throughout which he interrogates what it means to meet the world from a place of fear, while insisting that the trauma of exile does not have to result in a limited life defined by insecurity or the threat of violence.
Today, exile’s violence appears most obviously in the debate surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis and the fearmongering that seeks to equate refugees with terrorism. But in historical perspective, the isolationist tendency such discourse illustrates is a long-standing tension in the American experiment dating back at least to the Page Act of 1875, which banned persons from Asia from coming to the United States for the purposes of contract labor or prostitution. The law’s true aim, however, was to reinforce white hegemony against the perceived threat of Asian — particularly Chinese — incursion. Seven years later, Congress doubled down on its xenophobia with the Chinese Exclusion Act, an outright ban on the naturalization of Chinese immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the “Asiatic Barred Zone Act,” further criminalized immigration from Asia. As an immigrant and, particularly, an immigrant from Asia, Vuong is writing within the context of the United States’s deeply fraught immigration tradition.
Vuong doesn’t shy away from depicting how nativist fear and suspicion can fill private and public spaces with a language of violence. Family life, for example, the traditional sphere of nurturing support, is corrupted by exile, becoming an arena of brutality. In “Headfirst,” the speaker’s mother says, “My son, tell them / the body is a blade that sharpens / by cutting.” Motherhood-in-exile is presented as necessarily arching toward painful self-sacrifice starting at childbirth. In “Always & Forever,” a father’s love is a Colt .45, “silent & heavy / as an amputated hand.” Romantic impulses similarly take on a barbaric tint. “Into the Breach” starts with an epigram about the infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer before describing tenderness as “a thing to be beaten / into.”
Vuong hitches this brutal worldview to citizenship, marking it a complicated “identitarian” position for the exile who lacks the luxury of a simpler, unconditional nationalism. At times that desire for simplicity borrows iconic white American figures to make its point, as in “Of Thee I Sing,” where the speaker is Jackie Kennedy, riding beside her husband at the moment of his assassination. She endeavors to maintain poise in the face of catastrophe for the sake of her country.
“We made it baby,” she says. “They have a good citizen / in me. I love my country. / I pretend nothing is wrong.” Vuong’s Jackie feigns ignorance, but she longs to inhabit that authentically unwitting space for the sake of others, as do exiles who long to put aside a troubling immigration tradition and a less-than-welcoming reception in favor of a frictionless communion with their adopted communities. In “Seventh Circle of Earth,” Vuong further grafts violence to national pride when he writes about the gruesome murder of two gay men in Texas by immolation: “Look how happy we are / to be no one / & still American.”
But for all his laments, Vuong holds out hope for a life that isn’t defined by fear. When his father runs to save a beached dolphin, the speaker of “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back” notes:
The last time
I saw him run like that, he had
a hammer in his fist, mother
a nail-length out of reach.
America. America a row of streetlights
flickering on his whiskey
-lips as we ran.
While quick to attribute the violence of the scene to “ADD. PTSD,” by calling out America, Vuong makes clear that the speaker’s father also lays blame on the speaker’s adopted homeland. Having established the centrality of exile as both a catalyst for violence and driver of fear in the exile, Vuong pivots back to the poem’s narrative moment in order to recast the act of running as a recuperative symbol:
I am running
toward a rusted horizon, running
out of a country
to run out of
The speaker chases his father, who is now cradling the dolphin:
& although I am still
too far to hear it, I can tell,
by the way his neck tilts
to one side, as if broken,
that he is singing
my favorite song
to his empty hands.
The hammer is gone. In its place is an individual who has let his guard down. Vuong’s running speaker refutes the simplifying narrative of fear and violence, and instead insists on the possibility of overcoming exile’s heavy burden.
Vuong is part of a larger community of contemporary writers exploring exile’s impact on their understanding of themselves in the world. While acknowledging that the term “exile” itself is necessarily amorphous, Patricia Engel, an American-born novelist of Colombian parents, wrote recently that “[f]or all its elasticity, the English language is limited in its ability to convey the […] spectrum of related traumas” that come with exile. For instance, though there are key differences between exile and refugee experiences, there are parallels in the ways both groups talk about the shared experience of coming to the United States, often under duress and with little inoculation against the virulent strain of nativism that has informed centuries of American immigration policy.
Poet Richard Blanco uses the language of exile to inscribe secret histories upon the commonplace, as seen in “El Florida Room” where a bonus room is certainly “[n]ot a study or a den,” “a sunroom,” “a sitting room,” or “a TV room,” but rather “El Florida,” a place named after the site of his family’s exile and the space in which the resonant moments of a family’s life transpires. It is the place where he “watched / Creature Feature as a boy, clinging / to [his] brother,” and where his father “read Nietzsche / and Kant a few months before he died.” In Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer, the exile (or refugee) is a “reluctant time traveler.” The “displaced” person occupies more than “two cultures,” and must “also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past.” One temporally unbound by the trauma of exile must also learn to use language in contradictory fashion. Nguyen’s unnamed narrator reflects that:
[W]hile nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom! These two slogans are almost the same, but not quite. The first inspiring slogan was Ho Chi Minh’s empty suit, which he no longer wore. […] The second slogan was the tricky one, the joke. It was Uncle Ho’s empty suit turned inside out, a sartorial sensation that only a man of two minds […] dared to wear.
Elsewhere the narrator “brood[s] over the problem of representation” and wonders whether while writing a confession for his communist captors if he even “own[s his] own representation.” The trauma of exile would indicate that he does not. Vuong left Vietnam in 1990 with his mother — long after the war central to Nguyen’s book — but what binds his experience to Nguyen’s, Blanco’s, and Engel’s is a history of trauma intrinsic to the experience of exile, one that informs the exile’s perception of the world.
While trauma may provide common ground for disparate communities, it’s important to not allow trauma to define life. Nguyen, writing in his new book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, warns against the seduction of “flat” characters. Nguyen is writing, specifically, about the propensity to reduce the lives of combatants in a conflict to heroic or barbarous actions, rather than acknowledging the fullness of individual lives. Yet, the warning is applicable to the trauma of exile as well. As a poet, Vuong is ideally suited to overcoming a simplifying narrative of trauma because poetry can more easily circumvent the strictures of narrative often placed upon prose, and instead focus on the idiosyncratic roundness of a complete emotional life.
As the literature of exile shows, a historical tradition of violence or potential violence in the present creates an atmosphere of fear and suspicion for the exiled, robbing them of the agency of a “round” experience. Vuong’s major contribution in Night Sky With Exit Wounds is to push back against the inclination to let fear define the exile’s life. When he returns to the father in “Immigrant Haibun,” Vuong describes the harrowing ordeal of fleeing a “smoldering” city by boat: “If we make it to shore, [the speaker’s father] says, I will name our son / after this water. I will learn to love a monster.” Perhaps the trauma of exile is inescapable, Vuong argues, but it does not have to be insurmountable. The individual can reclaim agency and insist upon a “round” life that admits the toll of exile while also allowing for ambition and joy. He can “learn to love a monster,” despite the United States’s long, troublesome immigration history. It’s the work of decades, maybe even generations, but Vuong’s poetry stakes out a course.
Back in south Florida, I helped my mom switch out her deadbolt. We made that small concession to fear. But the doorjamb she’d purchased? It didn’t fit. Exchanging it for a new one was too much trouble and would require a third trip to Home Depot, so she decided to do without.
Dan Lopez is the author of the forthcoming novel The Show House and a short story collection, Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. You can visit his website at danlopezauthor.com.